A cemetery, not a "mass grave"; Update: NYT scrubs TNR editor's "near certainty" that Thomas is a soldier; Update: Original quote restored; Update: MNF-I response added; Update: Yet another edit

“Scott Thomas” makes the NYT. Franklin Foer is still trying to corroborate his correspondent’s writings by talking to his buddies.

Meanwhile, at FOB Falcon:

There was a children’s cemetery unearthed while constructing a Combat Outpost (COP) in the farm land south of Baghdad International Airport. It was not a mass grave. It was not the result of some inhumane genocide. It was an unmarked cometary where the locals had buried children some years back. There are many such unmarked cemeteries in and around Baghdad. The remains unearthed that day were transported to another location and reburied.

Remember what “Scott” wrote about this incident.

About six months into our deployment, we were assigned a new area to patrol, southwest of Baghdad. We spent a few weeks constructing a combat outpost, and, in the process, we did a lot of digging. At first, we found only household objects like silverware and cups. Then we dug deeper and found children’s clothes: sandals, sweatpants, sweaters. Like a strange archeological dig of the recent past, the deeper we went, the more personal the objects we discovered. And, eventually, we reached the bones. All children’s bones: tiny cracked tibias and shoulder blades. We found pieces of hands and fingers. We found skull fragments. No one cared to speculate what, exactly, had happened here, but it was clearly a Saddam-era dumping ground of some sort.

He’s describing a stratified dump, with the bodies of children at the bottom–a mass grave–that “no one cared to speculate what, exactly, had happened here.” The PAO of the base tells us that it was a children’s cemetary that was discovered and relocated in an orderly fashion. Nothing had “happened” there at all. “Scott Thomas” has written a mound of untruth around a kernel of truth. I started to suspect as much when I came across this passage on a site about FOB Falcon a few days ago.

Previous construction work at the Forward Operating Base Ferrin-Huggins [now called FOB Falcon] site had been done fast and cheap. Soldiers later were assigned with the renovation of a series of concrete housing facilities that had been previously hurriedly constructed by the Iraqis. They were constructed so fast, in fact, that the landfill they were built on had not been properly compacted and allowed settlement time. Subsequently, after the buildings went up and weathered the rainy season, the floors gave, breaking all the water systems. The soldiers had to replace those systems and as well as restore the buildings, with Army engineers also providing input to contracting. (emphasis added)

Put the two stories together, one about correcting construction over a landfill, and the other about the transport of an unmarked children’s cemetary, and you have the basis of the “Scott Thomas” story, which he embellished with the behavior of the soldier who put the chunk of skull on his head.

I now think that what the TNR has on its hands is not a fraudulent soldier, but a Walter Mitty. He’s there, he’s bored, and he’s using his real experiences as a basis to make stuff up.

Update (AP): At first blush this seems like nitpicking. It isn’t. Here’s how the quote read last night when I saw the piece:

The magazine granted anonymity to the writer to keep him from being punished by his military superiors and to allow him to write candidly, Mr. Foer said. He said that he had met the writer and that he knows with “near certainty” that he is, in fact, a soldier.

That blockquote comes from Dean Barnett. Here’s how it reads now, 14 hours after TNR took the unusual step of challenging the Times’s version in a posting on the site’s group blog, The Plank:

The magazine granted anonymity to the writer to keep him from being punished by his military superiors and to allow him to write candidly, Mr. Foer said. He said that he had met the writer and that he knows that he is, in fact, a soldier.

Why was TNR so quick to challenge the Times on that quote? Because they perceived, quite rightly, that running war dispatches from a guy they’re not even sure is a soldier not only would immolate the credibility of their investigation into Thomas’s reporting but would confirm that their initial fact-checking is as piss-poor as those conservative bloggers for whom Foer has such contempt have alleged. Conveniently, there’s nothing in the article or on the Times’s corrections page to explain the sudden omission of “near certainty,” which can mean, as Ace says, only two things: either the Times blew the quote originally or they got it right but pulled it under pressure from TNR. At the very least, the Times is guilty of trying to hide its own mistake, at worst they’re colluding to hide a very damning admission. Which is it?

Update (AP): And just like that, after a few hours of complaining from conservatives, the “near certainty” quote is magically restored to the Times piece. No explanation whatsoever. Is it simply case of which side is embarrassing the Times most acutely at any given moment? If Foer comes back with an indignant, outraged post about the Times misquoting him, will it disappear again?

Update (bp): MNF-I has put out an official response to the “Scott Thomas” affair.

“We are aware of what was written under a pseudonym. Its writer is unknown as are his motives. We hold soldiers to the highest standards and the allegations made are completely inconsistent with those expectations. In the absence of any credible information or independent corroboration, we presently have no reason to believe it.”

V/r
MAJ Alston

Update (AP): Via Ace, third time’s a charm:

The magazine granted anonymity to the writer to keep him from being punished by his military superiors and to allow him to write candidly, Mr. Foer said. He said that he had met the writer and that he knows with “near certainty” that he is, in fact, a soldier.

After this article appeared, Mr. Foer said he was “absolutely certain” that the author is a soldier.

Yes, we already know that. The question is why it read differently in the original article. Anyone going to answer that or have the two sides reached a mutually satisfactory agreement?